Gordon Gould

Laser inventor who fought for his patents


Richard Gordon Gould, physicist: born New York 17 July 1920; married first Glen Fulwider (marriage dissolved 1953), secondly 1955 Ruth Hill (marriage dissolved), thirdly Marilyn Appel; died New York 16 September 2005.

Gordon Gould was a major figure in the development of the laser. He played a leading role in early laser research, but today is best known for the 30-year struggle to secure US patent rights on the laser that eventually made him a rich man.

Born in 1920 in Manhattan, Gould was the son of Kenneth Miller Gould, the long-time editor of Scholastic magazine, but it was his mother who introduced him to building things. Independent-minded and with leftist political leanings, he had a chequered career in academia and industry. His first round of graduate study, in optics and spectroscopy at Yale University in Connecticut, was interrupted by the Second World War. Yale professors helped him get a job at the Manhattan Project. There he fell in love with a young woman co-worker whose penchant for Communism eventually got them both sacked. Although they split up after a brief marriage, that involvement with Marxism would haunt Gould for years.

Gould's dream was to be an independent inventor, but after a series of jobs he realised he needed to learn more physics. In 1949 he enrolled in Columbia University's demanding graduate programme. It was slow going. Gould studied part-time while teaching physics at the City University of New York, until he was sacked from that job in 1954 for refusing to inform on his Communist friends. Columbia and his second wife helped him out, and by October 1957 he had nearly finished his doctoral research under the Nobel Laureate Polykarp Kusch. Then Charles Townes summoned Gould to his office.

Townes had earlier invented the microwave-emitting maser, and wanted to use the same principle of stimulated emission to generate light. He asked Gould about optical pumping, a new technique Gould had used to excite thallium atoms to specific energy states in his thesis research, which Townes thought he could use in an optical version of the maser. The idea was in the air at Columbia, and Gould saw it could be his big chance. After two conversations with Townes, Gould struck off on his own and began working intently in his apartment, while Townes continued his systematic analysis of the idea at Columbia and later at Bell Labs with his brother-in-law Arthur Schawlow.

At that point, the idea of the laser was essentially a physics problem to be solved. With his background in optics, Gould intuitively realised that the best way to make a laser was to put a pair of mirrors parallel to each other on the ends of a cylinder containing excited atoms or molecules. By 13 November, he had outlined that design and coined the word laser, for Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation. He also decided to drop out of Columbia and concentrate on patenting invention. Gould consulted with a patent lawyer, but left with the misunderstanding that he had to build a laser to patent the idea, and got a job working at TRG Inc to support himself.

Gould initially kept his laser project secret, but eventually told the company president, Lawrence Goldmuntz, who loved the idea and helped Gould with the patent - and with an application for a military research grant to develop the laser. They asked the newly founded Advanced Research Projects Agency for $300,000, but the agency was so excited by the prospects of powerful beams of coherent light that they gave TRG $1m. Unfortunately, the Pentagon also classified the contract, requiring Gould to obtain a security clearance if he was to work on it. His application was turned down because of his Communist past, so other TRG physicists could tell him nothing about their results, hobbling the project.

Meanwhile Townes and Schawlow had published a seminal paper outlining the concept, analysing it more rigorously than Gould had in his patent filing, and launched laser development projects at Bell and Columbia. The major problem in building a laser proved to be finding a suitable material, and identifying synthetic ruby allowed Theodore Maiman to build the first working laser at Hughes Research Laboratories in California.

A patent filed by Schawlow and Townes initially blocked Gould from receiving a US patent, but he did obtain a series of patents outside the United States, starting with one issued in Belgium in 1962. Gould didn't give up easily on the US patent, and kept fighting as legal bills mounted. He left TRG, taught for several years at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, then joined with an old friend to found a small fibre-optics company called Optelecom as a series of legal decisions carved away at his claims. However, one decision held out hope, and in the mid-1970s he traded part of his patent rights for help in pursuing his claims.

The strategy worked, and in 1977 he received the first of four patents. Three of them covered limited but important aspects of laser operation, and the fourth covered a broad range of applications. The laser industry fought the patents, but gave up after a crushing court defeat in 1987. By that time Gould owned only 20 per cent of the patent rights, but the income was enough to make him a mulitmillionaire. Ironically, the decades of delay earned him many times the amount he would have received if his patent had been approved promptly.

His patent triumph cast Gordon Gould as a feisty outsider who stubbornly fought the establishment and won, and earned him a place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Although he published little, he was a font of ideas for early laser development.

Jeff Hecht

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